Many adults do not have a Will, a Financial Power of Attorney or aren’t even sure what a Healthcare Directive is. If you are among these adults, then preparing an estate plan should be at the top of your to-do list.
But even if you do have an estate plan, it might be missing something important – – provisions for your digital assets. These include the electronic data stored on your smartphone or computer, your Internet accounts like LinkedIn and GMail and your online pictures and documents.
Without your passwords or lawful consent, your spouse, children or trusted friend may not be able to manage your digital assets if you become unable to. Managing your digital assets during a period of incapacity or upon your death could be more important than you might think. Some of these assets, like your Paypal or Amazon accounts, may have monetary value. Your password-protected iPad or smartphone may become useless. Your e-mail account or personal blog page could be of great sentimental importance. Even a voicemail account may be valuable if it includes messages from potential customers.
Having a valid Will or Power of Attorney is unlikely to be helpful unless it includes specific language addressing digital assets. This is a new area of the law, so most estate-planning documents do not address these issues.
What to do?
The first step toward protecting yourself is to conduct a digital inventory. Do you own electronics that require a password? These could include a smartphone, laptop, tablet, DVR, TiVo or even your home burglar alarm.
What accounts on the Internet do you maintain that require you to log in? This could include e-mail, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn accounts. It could also include your mortgage account, credit cards, checking and/or savings accounts, utility companies, health insurance companies, investment sites, etc.
Make a list of this information and keep it in a safe place. You can either go the low-tech route and prepare a simple written list, or you can put the information on a thumb drive. Whatever you choose to do, the list represents the keys to your virtual kingdom and should be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. You might want to give the list to a trusted friend, family member or your attorney for safekeeping. Or yu may want to store it in a home fire safe or a safe deposit box.
Next, think about how you want these assets to be managed if you were to become incapacitated or die. For example, you might want your e-mail account to be deleted. Or you may want your digital photographs shared with your family.
Some web-based companies have their own policies that dictates what happens when an account owner dies. For example, Google, Hotmail and Yahoo! will not grant a deceased account owner’s family access to the account, but they may release the account’s contents under special circumstances. Facebook also denies survivors access but will “memorialize” the account of someone who has died. Google users can now set up an “Inactive Account Manager” to direct what happens to their online data after they die.
The most important, and final, step is to update your Will and Power of Attorney to include provisions for managing your digital property. At the very least, your Will should grant someone specific powers to handle these assets – either your Personal Representative (executor) or someone who may be more tech-savvy. You may also want to reference your external list of digital assets and logon information. But don’t put all of this information in your Will itself, because it will become public after your death. An updated Power of Attorney will grant your attorney-in-fact similar authority in case you become incapacitated.
Whether you are having your first Will prepared or updating an old one to include provisions for digital assets, our experienced attorneys are here to help. Please call today for an appointment at (314) 962-0186.